A new study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research looked at tactics for drawing youth to vaping. The study consisted of two parts. First, researchers gathered a substantial amount of evidence about why youth are drawn into vaping. Then, the researchers took all of these reasons that youth cite for taking up e-cigarettes and used it as a framework to see if e-cigarette advertisements tap into any of them.
“We were hoping to shed light on what specific marketing strategies are used in e-cigarette ads so that we can be armed with the ability to identify what features and strategies likely pose a risk to youth based on what we know draws youth into vaping,” study author, Dr. Laura L Struik told us. “A stipulation banning marketing to youth is only helpful if we can specifically identify what marketing to youth really looks like.”
Based on evidence that e-cigarette advertisements are so influential on vaping uptake among young people, the research team expected to find links between how the ads portrayed e-cigarette use and the reasons that youth take up vaping. However, they were quite surprised at how many links there really were, and the nature of these links was also quite surprising.
“We know that e-cigarette advertisements are not allowed to be promoted to youth according to regulations, but this raises the following question: Why, then, are researchers are finding that youth who view e-cigarette advertisements significantly more likely to find e-cigarettes appealing, perceive them as less harmful, and more likely to take up vaping?” Dr. Struik told us. “In this study, we wanted to dig into this a bit more by scrutinizing ads that have been allowed to air.”
The researchers found that there are a variety of intersecting reasons that youth take up vaping. This means that there are likely multiple reasons that a youth might take this up, versus one reason alone, like the perception that it is less harmful than cigarettes.
Youth cited 16 reasons for taking up cigarettes, which were categorized into four themes (personal reasons, like curiosity or stress; relational reasons, like peer use or social acceptance; environmental reasons, like cost; and product reasons, like flavours).
“Let’s just try to understand youth a little more here,” Dr. Struik told us. “So the young people of today have been called the ‘tired generation’ due to increased stress, lack of sleep, and high rates of mental health concerns. Vaping solves these problems in the short-term.”
Nicotine triggers dopamine, the chemical in your brain that makes you feel happy, alert, and focused. So in many ways, youth are taking up vaping to help them get through their days.
“We also have peer influences, where the popularity of vaping will lend to uptake in an effort to be socially accepted or to increase their social networks,” Dr. Struik told us. “This, among many other reasons that youth may take up vaping, need to be acknowledged. So the take home here is that, why they are taking up e-cigarettes is complex, and we cannot look at it in a simple, one-dimensional way.”
The second part of the study confirms that e-cigarette companies certainly accommodate and leverage this complexity. The ads tapped into pretty much all of these cited reasons.
“What was really concerning is that we found that the most highly cited reasons for uptake, were also the most popular things that ads emphasized, which was related to product (innovative device, flavours, discreet device that can be used anywhere, etc.) and relational aspects (not something that will lend to being a social pariah like smoking does; but rather, will enhance your acceptance socially),” Dr. Struik told us. “On average, each ad tapped into about four of the 16 reasons for uptake among youth. That these things are presented in the ads indicates purposeful and successful marketing to young people.”
The tactics used directly appeal to the developmental stage of adolescents, which is a time of curiosity, sensation seeking behaviour, and a strong need to form peer networks.
“While we expected to see links between youth reasons for uptake and strategies in the ads, we were surprised by a few things,” Dr. Struik told us. “The fact that the ads tapped into the most highly cited reasons for taking up vaping (product appeal through emphasizing flavours and technological innovation and relational aspects) were a little surprising. What was really astounding was that none of the ads were marketing e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking. In a simple way, they were telling people that smoking is out of date, out of style, and that e-cigarettes are the future and a way to get what you want, which is the nicotine, without the social judgement or the ash and smell from cigarettes. So they are actually promoting the use of nicotine, and ultimately actively facilitating and advocating for addiction.”
Once a tobacco-related product infiltrates social networks and becomes a part of a social identity, youth are more resistant to health promotion messages. Therefore, Dr. Struik believes navigating the issue should be done in a thoughtful way.
“In this vein, I think it is critical that we incorporate the voices of youth in developing and delivering health promotion messages and programming so that youth are getting what they need and want,” Dr. Struik told us. “The findings of this study confirm that strict bans on e-cigarette advertising is warranted and confirms that Canada is making the right move.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com